February 25, 2024

Interview with Fee Wallace

Fee Wallace

DMBINS / Neat Project Coordinator
Aberdeenshire Trail Association committee
2022 Trail Advocate of the Year

How did you get started? Could you briefly describe your journey from the first time you organised a volunteer dig day to your current professional role with NEAT / DMBinS?
I discovered Aberdeenshire Trail Association in 2018 through my boyfriend who was part of the core group that helped set up the association. It was really good fun and the essence of taking care of your trails. I started participating in dig days and the vibe was really good. I learned a lot without feeling incompetent. The environment was very supportive so I kept going back.
I started capturing some of it for social media and having good fun with that. Being able to capture the elements of dig days for the association, I took over their social media to help them out.
In 2021, Aberdeenshire was hit with significant storms and we lost over 80% of our trails overnight. So, our social media turned into notices, texts and issues boards. I was sending several messages a day to the committee, passing messages on and asking them questions. I was kind of adopted on to the committee and that was made official in 2022.
From there, it’s been a whirlwind. We have gone through significant changes with our committee. We went from a committee running with three to four people to a six person committee and eight trail leaders who look after our individual forests. We’ve gone from looking after one trail in 2028 to forty four trails today.
In 2023, DMBinS (Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland) advertised a job for their Northeast adventure tourism project. It had a specific element of supporting the Trails Associations and looking at trails development. So, after seventeen years in social work I decided that I would really like to have an opportunity to work with this professionally. I feel very privileged to be now working as a part of the DMBinS team. I am providing support to the trails associations, working on developing a sustainable trails plan, making sure we’ve got the right trails in the right places that both meet the riding community’s needs and Forests management plans.

Building relationships with land managers is instrumental to gain trust and getting permission. How did you succeed? What arguments have you used to convince land managers?
We are very lucky in Aberdeenshire to have a great relationship with our land owners. That’s both National land owners like forestry land Scotland and also the private landowners on the Estates. They have taken time to nurture our relationship, and we have gained their trust and established mutual respect. I would say that we started small with one trail on Forestry Land Scotland. We set out to prove ourselves..
My advice will be to legitimize yourself. Create a document that outlines what it is you are trying to do, why that is your goal and how you’re going to do it. Make sure you have permission to be on the land or work to obtain it. Look at getting accredited as well and trained in first aid for example. That all contributes to showing that you’ve actually thought about it, that there is a plan in place and you are going to look after the trail as well as the people that you are going to be taking out riding and working on the trail.
Keep it really simple and make it easy for the landowners I would say. They are so busy dealing with other issues on their land (forest management, falling trees, recreational activities, protected species, protected features …). they don’t want to have to deal with ten different events or ten different individuals, saying they want to look after a trail. If it’s really simple for them and you can show that you are there to lead those events, that you have united yourselves together and that you share a purpose, it’s easy for the land owner to say, “Yes, I’ll deal with you.” Ask yourselves how you can help the land owner, like sharing messages about future plans for felling. Maybe you can help them solve problems, like re-routing access routes going through a protected area.
Building support from the community has been a huge thing as well. A wide and varied support form the community can provide a snapshot across riders, which will help you get them all onboard.
In summary, start small, build trust and then move forward. Trail development is an exciting prospect for all of us but that comes after a lot of trail maintenance and building the mutual respect needed to establish trust.

Not everything works out at first go, what setbacks have you experienced and how did you overcome them in the end?
We’ve had many setbacks, but I think it’s quite normal when you’re taking on something so new and so big. My advice wopuld be not to take them personally or to heart. Stop, take time to think. Is there a different approach we can take? Is it just time that we need to let things settle? In terms of sports, mountain biking is still quite new. It is the new kid on the block still and we are still developing and figuring out where we fit in. Lots of folks may have had bad experiences with mountain bikers using their lands. Sometimes we all get painted over with the same brush. If you can show land owners that you are taking your time, listening to guidance, building a community, then you are in a good position to move forward.
You might get some pushback from some riders or builders. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry too much and I would remember that you are trying to do something good. Everyone is going to have an opinion and that is totally OK. But if you can collaborate with as many people as possible, then you are going to do a good thing.
There is no personal gain from looking out after your trails. There is a shared benefit though. Your community will see that, they will ride them and they will feel that.
Of course there are things like felling, climate change events, that can disturb things but that provides a bit of opportunity. In Aberdeenshire, we’ve had lots of trails that we have been unable to reopen but it’s given us an opportunity to develop new trails. Give land owners that bit of space and time to clear the issues of felling and storms and clearing their timber, but just give yourselves time as well. After trying to instantly deal with things and rescue trails, we have learned that taking time is OK. Taking some of the stress out of it actually offers a bit of space for creation and trying something different.

How have you tried to manage the expectations of the rider community as well? Mountain bikers sometimes progress quickly in their sports and want harder and more technical trails. That pace of development is not always the same pace of development that the land owner has in mind. Is that something that you have witnessed here as well ?
Yes, and I think doing things properly does take longer. It’s acknowledged it can be frustrating but doing it properly means you are building that trust with the landowner and they are more inclined to protect your trails when it comes to forest management (felling for example).
We have done a huge amount of work with land owners in our area and it’s quite exciting because we are now seeing the benefits of that relationship, trust and respect. They are now giving us avenues to develop and create trails legitimately which is great. It might have taken a lot longer than just to go and do it. But actually when you just go and do it, they are under no obligation to protect that trail when it comes to managing their forest.

We have noticed a lot of women involved in the pictures you shared. Is it the average king of representation in the local trail association ?
We do have a strong female riding community up here. A lot of women are involved, lots of women help on dig days and we actually have an even split of women and men on the committee. We have got some cracking people that kind of have allowed that to develop naturally. It’s not tokenism, this is something that has naturally evolved. Some pretty cool women are involved now as well.
I think ideally we wouldn’t need to have women-only dig days and that people would just feel able to come along to other dig days but there are absolutely benefits to doing that. It’s kind of that safe space where women could come along, test it out, gain the confidence and ultimately have fun. Our women-only dig days are an absolute hoot. We had one during the Take care of Your Trails last year that celebrated the Jubilee and we had Jan dressed up as the Queen lording it around on the trails. They are good fun and I think it is that element of fun in a dig day that allows people to feel confident, valued and able to come back.

Having so many women involved and being one, does it help to build trust with landowners and forestry managers ?
Possibly. Because I am employed, I now work with land managers and I have a really good working relationship with them all. I feel very valued and I don’t feel that my gender has any influence on what I am able to do. I think I am very valued for what I have achieved and the community has achieved and can represent that quite well. Maybe we are just in a good place in Aberdeenshire and I do feel very lucky.

You said in the beginning, Aberdeenshire Trail Association (ATA) started small with one trail and now you oversee more than forty four trails. Can you give an example of the larger projects now taking place in the area ?
We started with one trail in 2018 which was a purpose built trail. We were looking to maintain it and improve it a little bit. The founding lads worked really hard to demonstrate their competence, their commitment and their capacity to support that trail network. With each day, all the behind the scenes work (phone calls, meetings, emails, …) that kind of grew and we now have permission to work on forty four trails across eight forests and areas. Aberdeenshire is quite a large section of Scotland.
Some projects have been really small like maintaining trails. It might not be as exciting as building big berms but actually it is really important to keep those trails from growing over, allowing access to trails.
We’ve had some huge projects like Heartbreak Ridge, pretty iconic and visible. We’ve supported them and they’ve been an avenue for bigger funding (DMBinS, bike shops, riding community, …). That allowed professional contractors to come in and create the big project.
But you know, all of the projects have taken a long time and have been built on by many people over time, using the strengths that each can contribute. Professional trail designers, ecologists, coaches, riders, have all been part of that process, whether it’s using their professional skills or contacts or rallying the community. The big projects are built on by completing lots of smaller projects and smaller dig days where we’ve got the schools or the community coming out and people trusting you to be able to take on the bigger project.

What’s the secret to building up that community spirit that there currently is in the Aberdeenshire region? How can others work to get volunteers excited and engaged?
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot that going on in Aberdeenshire. We have dips as well and that’s absolutely fine. The key is consistency and good vibes. Open it up, allow people to come, get involved and be a part of it at any level they want to. Appreciate that some of the development stuff can’t be shared at full level but if we are able to say a little bit it allows people to build that excitement. Ask questions, teach them but allow them to make mistakes. Trail days don’t have to be perfect and a trail doesn’t have to make or break by having a trail day. It’s better that somebody comes back and comes back with their friends, their kids, because they’ve had fun. It’s better if it felt purposeful, it felt meaningful and they had a really good laugh, than it is for them to be told over and over again that something’s not right, do that differently, you need to do this … There is a limit on that, like building huge jumps on a dig day. There is a bit of management to do but it’s much better that people have a good time and come back than it is to have a perfect dig. We don’t take ourselves too seriously on dig days. There is a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes so when dig day comes we can have fun, get dirty, harness that community spirit.
We have seen a big increase in the last year or so in the bike shops, coaches and groups getting involved which is great. People that are using those trails regularly and want to look after the trails they are benefiting from. They are looking to get involved, collaborating and supporting dig days whether it’s providing the food and drinks or some sort of swag like tee-shirts specially made for dig days. We love that team spirit and I think people love feeling part of something bigger.

Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS) has been organizing volunteer courses. Is that also a way to keep volunteers engaged ? Getting more skills and maybe more responsibility ?
We’ve got a lot of our trail leaders trained up through the DIRTT course. That allows them to take people out on the trails and have that sense of pride and ownership with their forest.
Sometimes life happens, people move on and you see the next wave of people coming through, nourishing that same king of passion. Allow them to be part of it and don’t keep it closed. Just open up, when people are showing an interest.